Being on Television
Meghan Sutherland / Oklahoma State University
Anyone who follows the soap opera One Life to Live knows that the citizens of Llanview, Pennsylvania have both seen and made plenty of trouble. When I first began watching the show a quarter-of-a-century ago, the illustrious Mitch Lawrence had commandeered half the women in town as sex slaves using a few well-placed barbituates and an evangelical charisma. In the years since, he has returned to wreak similar forms of havoc at least three times; he is doing it right now, in fact. And he is hardly the only one. As in every soap opera town, the social body of Llanview is composed of born rogues—which is to say, the unethical, the immoral, and the violent. At least to my thinking, it is this vision of every social body as a fluctuating compendium of accidental murderers, petty thieves, and pious criminals that makes soap operas so compelling. But it is also this fundamentally perverse vision of the social that requires the genre to include moments of moral and textual reconnaissance. As a genre, it must periodically collect its stray plot-lines and outlaws into something like a community, something like a story, and something like the kind of society with the kind of values that we read about in civics classes and German philosophy—the Romantic volk, the Kantian universal, the Habermasian public.
For as long as I can remember, One Life to Live has generally fulfilled this requirement with a P.T. Andersonesque montage of shots showing each character enjoying his or her particular struggle or triumph in some place or another—getting laid in a bar, repressing a rape in a hospital—while a song about the universal struggles and triumphs of life serves to bind these characters together into an economy that is temporal, moral, ethical, geographical, and textual all at once. In December of last year, however, the writers introduced a new trope of unity to the show’s aesthetic repertoire: the broadcast of an old black-and-white holiday film called Christina Comes Home for Christmas. In other words, rather than using a maudlin song as an ad hoc analogy for the galvanizing effects that both television and soap operas have attributed to the medium’s affect of “liveness” since the fifties, they opted for an even more concentrated expression of televisual presence than live television itself.
For an indication of what makes the holiday broadcast event such a concentrated production of televisual presence, one can look no further than the show’s presentation of its effects.1 In the first part of the episode where the film airs, multiple characters tell rapturous stories about their childhood memories of the film and the unique meaning it holds for them. The subsequent event of the broadcast itself then serves as an affective and spatio-temporal consummation of two overlapping sets of relationships: at the level of the text and the community, the relationship between a whole succession of shots showing characters scattered throughout Llanview in isolated scenes; in each of the isolated domestic scenes, a romantic relationship between a pair of deviants brought together by the sentimental spirit that the film occasions. We see Jessica and Brody, both patients in a mental ward, learning to look past their respective war-crimes and hostage-taking episodes and into each other’s eyes; we see the extortionists Natalie and Jared passed out in the film’s electronic light after having sex; we see Blair, the wife of gang-rapist Todd, snuggling against her rogue-cop boyfriend as she mouths Christina’s lines about returning to true love; the list goes on. Whatever past and current indiscretions might haunt the citizens of Llanview, the simultaneity of this traditional holiday television broadcast briefly unites them in a communal time and space. More importantly, though, the sentimental genre of the Christmas film that makes the broadcast such a powerful conduit for communal bonding in these separate but networked scenes—supplying its own overarching soundtrack of maudlin music and dialogue—provides a textual affirmation of the universal values and needs that temporarily bind them together in the image of a moral economy, rather than a television audience. Simply put, the sequence cannot simply rely on the technology of “live” transmission per se in order to present the scene of the television audience as a spectacle of social plenitude or universal togetherness. It must connect the “imagined community” of electronic transmission to something more potent than the technology of a wall-socket, an economy, or a network—something that itself constitutes these technological figurations as ontological productions of social plenitude: a representation of the very ideal of universalism that undergirds the idealist social imaginary of broadcast technology and economics in the first place.
As I have already begun to suggest, the show’s staging of this scenario presents us with a visual literalization of what Jane Feuer so indelibly describes as the “ideology [of] ontology” that attends television liveness.2 Despite its apparent disregard for the very notion of the social contract, the community of Llanview is, just as Feuer puts it, “unified as a direct . . . consequence of television technology.3 Its appearance as such is embodied by its simultaneous appearance as a series of linked living room audiences. And yet, for me the interest of this enactment does not lie in the extent to which it might be said to promote an essentialist ideology of television technology, or the illusory experience of social co-presence that this ideology promises to the viewer as the scene of its ontological mystification. Instead, I would argue that the role of the holiday broadcast here draws our attention to an altogether different understanding of the relation between media, ontology, and the social.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it reminds us that the representational medium of the image plays a constitutive role in the particular ontological effect that is generally, if somewhat vaguely, attributed to the technological medium of broadcast “presence.” What is more, it reminds us that this ontological register of the medium does not necessarily have anything to do with the medium of television technology, ideology, or liveness per se—even though it conditions the social imaginaries they configure as either its double or its differend (to borrow a term from Lyotard). This is, after all, why the show relies on the trans-media genre of the holiday story in order to compose the universal moral economy of the show and the community. Insofar as these texts almost invariably present us with tableaux embodying the same universal ideals that most Western holidays allegedly honor—peace on Earth, good will (to men), the spirit of giving and compassion, family homecomings, and so on—they imply an image of the audience that is likewise bound together, as an audience and a society at once, by its economic embrace of these same ideals. Indeed, as the Christina Comes Home sequence makes visibly manifest, the aesthetic economy of the holiday homecoming tale already proliferates an isometric tableau of the audience gathered before it in each of the otherwise particular living rooms that it lights; the aesthetic enactment of universalism onscreen provides the ontological ground on which the “liveness” of broadcast configures itself as a technology of the social.
As the description of Llanview with which I began should make equally manifest, though, the images we see of its residents on a daily basis provide a radically different ground for the social imaginary of broadcast, and indeed, for the ontological construction of the social that the discourse of televisual presence can affect. Rather than providing an onscreen embodiment of universal community, this ensemble of warring rogues—a designation that, Derrida reminds us, positions one outside the rule of any moral or legal economy—instead presents us with the anti-social raw materials from which every economy of moral and political representation must construct society in reality, as well.4 That is, it presents us with an unreliably affiliated gang of warring sovereigns. By way of a closing, then, I want to propose that the flexible ontological affect of the television image has yet to be theorized within television studies. For although our field has effectively allowed the meaning of the term “ontology” to serve as an obsolete epithet for the mystifications of technological essentialism, in the scenes I have barely glossed above, the ontological question of the television image lies not in the nature of the technology that produces it, but rather, in the nature of the discursive social body that it produces. As a number of philosophers associated with the aesthetic turn in political ontology have elaborated—and I am thinking here of everyone from Ernesto Laclau and Jean-Luc Nancy to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Ranciere—the ontological construction of social materiality itself derives from these very same affects, which cannot be reduced to the two ontological scenarios that have defined the theoretical horizon of our field over the last several decades: simulation or materialism, Baudrillard or Althusser. The ontological gauntlet that this work throws down for us, then, consists of nothing less than our thinking both the politics of representation, and the place of television within them, anew.
1. Christina Comes Home for Christmas
2. Welcome to Llanview sign
3. It’s a Wonderful Life
Please feel free to comment.
- A rapturous review of this episode on Daytime Confidential only further confirms this effect. [↩]
- Jane Feuer, “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology,” in Regarding Television, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1983), 12-21. [↩]
- Ibid., 20. [↩]
- Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004). [↩]
The idea of an imaginary holiday film creating real memories in the imaginary community of Llanview brings me holiday joy. I think this creation of imaginary memories is crucial to the social effect of US TV. Thanks for alerting us to this and for your fascinating analysis. I wonder sometimes, however, how we manage to move so effortlessly from the most concrete sentimental moments to high French theory. I’m sure we’ll hear more from you about this!
Thanks for the article Meghan! I think your analysis really sheds light on how much televisual material and critique soap operas still can provide the television studies community in contemporary times–and not just as an obligatory paragraph or reference. Moreover, the notion of imaginary memories is so integral to the experience of soap opera viewings that it such a fascinating meta-text to have the same goings-on in Llanview. Your article made me consider how holiday films on television do function in our understandings of community and even nation even beyond those with a Christian subtext. My only quabble is the use of “P.T. Andersonesque.” I happen to love P.T. Anderson and his work, but those sorts of character montages had a home on soap operas long before Anderson, modelling after his hero Robert Altman, started using them in his films.
First let me thank both Jane and Racquel for their responses, which are at once generous and provocative. I would have liked to respond to them sooner but I have been traveling out of email range for several days now. So I’ll get to it.
Racquel, I’ll respond to you first. You are of course right to bring up the precedents of Altman and soaps and the style of the montage, and I absolutely take your point. I almost cut the reference to Anderson for this very reason. But I decided to leave it in for two reasons. First, I actually think that Anderson (whom I also like a lot) is the right point of reference here even though he is not the first to use this trope. Unlike Altman (whose specific style to me emphasizes entropy rather than unity), I think Anderson uses it pretty pointedly to bring out the inherently carnal melodrama of community that soaps do both here and in the many other instances I invoke. But I needed a succinct way to summon/characterize this extremely common trope of visual media style, and it struck me that taking recourse to the repertoire of cinematic auteurism already indicates a problem to which I am trying to speak here. Namely, that we have not paid nearly enough attention to the aesthetics of television, let alone the various ways in which the tropes of television style also serve to imbue the meanings we attach to familiar codes of representation in culture and politics more generally. I am of course not the first to point out the dearth of work on TV aesthetics (for one, Caldwell immediately comes to mind). But at least in my estimation, this problem directly relates to the long unrevised ontological assumptions that have provided a seemingly obvious methodological foundation for the importance of more materialist modes of research on television audiences and industries, and have thus had the unintended side-effect of giving the aesthetic analysis of the television image a seemingly excessive or secondary character. It is this ontological foundation, above all, that I would like for us to revisit. So thanks for pointing this out.
Jane, I am so pleased to hear from you—especially if I can give you the ultimate holiday gift of an imaginary sentiment. As I hope the piece suggests, I believe your work has contributed so much to the way we think about TV aesthetics and presence. It has certainly shaped the way I try to here! As for your concerns about the move to high French theory, you are right that I am eager to have a conversation around this issue. In fact, I’m already planning to revisit this subject in my next column, once I’ve heard some more thoughts from others. For now, though, I guess I would just say that the term “high French theory” itself suggests one of the issues that I hope my column would urge us to revisit. In fact, I sense that you have used this term precisely in order to raise the specter of a debate about television studies methodologies that has perhaps gone dormant, so I thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to address it. After all, to use this term is to bring in a very particular and highly charged methodological discourse about the way we can or should talk about popular culture—one that obviously works to generalize what theory is or does, and categorically defines theory in advance as that which is spatially, and in turn materially, removed and even opposed to the materiality of “low” culture by virtue of its ideal or conceptual “high”-ness.
One of the things that strikes me about the way this trope still registers in discourses about the methods of television and cultural studies scholarship is the fact that it is no longer simply a generalization about a wide and diverse body of ideas that in many instances concern the problem of materiality itself; it is now an almost forty-year-old generalization. Which is to say that whatever “high French theory” might have been in 1970, it is obviously something very different and even diverse within itself today—unless we simply cordon it off because it is theoretical, and is thus by definition “removed” from the scene of culture and its study.
As your invocation rightly intuits, it is precisely this impulse that I want us to rethink by actually revisiting the role that “theory” might play in television studies methodologies—especially since the discourse of theory in general has transitioned from the kinds of work that could be called “theory” on the basis of a certain scientific connotation (and I think of the infamous debates about the Althusserian trager in Anderson’s Poverty of Theory here) to the kinds of work that are now most properly referred to as contemporary philosophy. For I believe this transition marks a move away from precisely the sorts of easy abstractions for which the bad object of theory was designated by some cultural studies scholars as “high” in the first place, and a move toward a model of conceptual questioning that is by definition particular and unfixed, and at least in the phenomenological tradition that interests me specifically, is also necessarily bound to both the terrain of materiality and the problems that its apparent status as such (as objective or raw material) poses for any ontological consideration of the relation between style, culture, and politics. And so, while I realize that referring to Heidegger here may seem gauche if not rude to a number of scholars who abhor the mere odor of theory, I believe his critique of metaphysics raises a very important and real set of issues for us as television scholars: when we refer to the world of material objects as a matter-of-fact ground of reference (and referentiality more generally) we have already taken the question of ontology—or what defines being as such—for granted; we have already in effect accepted a theoretical argument about what being is. It if for this reason that I believe the phenomenological tradition that I cite in the essay, which grows out of Heidegger’s work (and its critique) and adapts it to problems of visuality and representational aesthetics as they relate to the production of being—holds numerous productive suggestions for a reassessment of television studies methodologies. Of course, at this point, I have gone on for almost the duration of a whole additional Flow essay! So I’ll try to leave something fun for later, and leave it at this for now (with apologies for my own forms of excess). But thanks again for bringing up exactly the issue of importance here—I greatly appreciate it and look forward to more conversations.
Great essay. Very provocative on a number of fronts, especially in calling for some new approaches to a “television aesthetic” more broadly defined and critically engaged.
A couple points that struck me from reading this:
1. I’m trying to imagine how this unification would play if they had simply used “It’s a Wonderful Life” rather than invent “Christina Comes Home for Christmas.” Of course, they can’t, inasmuch as soap operas are the science-fiction of emotional life and any meaningful reference to the outside world (our world? the real world? the non-tv world? Just where the hell is Llanview?) would be more unnerving than unifying. Many of the prime-time “quality” soaps attempted to present themselves as extensions of our social world (E.R., for example), but in doing so they sacrificed the odd hermetic seal that allows soaps to perform their work. “E.R.,” “The Wire,” and their ilk are essentially soft melodramas that comfort us in believing we know how the social really works, substituting a more respectable “quality” realism (and all its Lukacs-packed baggage) for the affective algebra of MELODRAMA. I’d be curious to know how “One LIfe” (or other daytime soaps) handle this potential contamination on a day to day level (do things like Obama, the Iraq War, the recession exist in their world–and if so, how?)
2. Related to the above, I find the linking of Derrida’s “Rogues” and Benedict Anderson’s work here interesting as well. As I recall, Anderson devotes the opening sections of that book to considering how narration in early modernity began to produce/assume the existence of “typical” actions taking place within the anonymity of the social–making it possible for the reader to imagine the simultaneous unfolding of action throughout this “imagined community.” This makes the show’s momentary pause to round-up its “outlaws” all the more interesting as it highlights the strange dynamics of this genre. Crime/deviance narratives most often take place in that exemplar of imagined social action–the city. And yet the typical soap accretes decade upon decade of truly criminal, unforgivable, heinous, or even just plain impolite behavior in the context of a “small town” politics that in many ways predates these abstractions of modern anonymity. Typically we just accept this as convention–people who tried to murder each other five years ago are now engaged, etc. But when they have these “unifying” moments, calling out their and our mutual investment in God, family, sentiment, etc., there is the strange paradox that their deviant or “roguish” identity is playing out on a stage where that type of invisibility and/or amnesia is actually impossible. There is an odd tension produced by staging this metonymy of modern political construction on the now almost wholly obsolescent political ideal of the small town community (which in Llanview’s case, is often less than ideal). Perhaps that’s why this convention is so apt (or at least consonant) to something like Anderson’s “Magnolia,” where the unity of editing across the song takes place in “the Valley”–one of the nation’s premiere laboratories in alienated “non-community” (at least in terms of its representational place in American popular culture).
Still, it’s great that even in this small town slice of demented Americana, the actual citizens can’t be bothered to assemble in any kind of actual “face-to-face” community, but instead “bond” in their isolated domestic tableaux through–as Jane notes–the implantation of “real” memories through a wholly hallucinated Holiday film.